The problem with some restaurants is that they have little or no identity. This is usually the case with hotel restaurants. While Belfast's Malone Lodge, the Radisson and the Europa have clearly defined their restaurants by giving them a name (respectively the Knife & Fork, Filini and the Causerie), others tend not to bother with a name.
This approach can be as counter-productive when it is applied to other operations that have a restaurant. Take for instance the Ulster Museum who, until recently, had a restaurant that had no name. If, like me, you were traumatised by the food in the pre-2009, £17m refurbished Ulster Museum cafe, you would never dare set foot in the place for fear of destabilising your mental and physical health – it really was that bad.
But now that the well-known local catering company Yellow Door has operated the restaurant for the last year or so, the reputation of Ulster Museum's restaurant offering has rocketed. It was already doing pretty well when John McNally held the franchise for the first three years since the reopening, so it's all the more encouraging to see that even his great work is being surpassed.
Andrew Dougan, the Yellow Door man at the museum, made a good decision when he decided to call the restaurant, er, Yellow Door at the Museum. People know where they stand when you give a place a name.
Andrew recently revealed his summer menu. This seasonality means that even if you've seen the Irish art collection a dozen times, or you still go back to see the Troubles gallery so you can sound knowledgeable when the cousins come over from Vancouver, or the natural history stuff, the fashion exhibitions or the salvaged treasures from the wrecked Armada ships, there's be always something new to eat in his restaurant. In fact, his seasonal menu announcement has almost as much impact now as the arrivals of new exhibitions and shows at the museum!
While I must declare an interest in so far as I engage in public relations work on behalf of the National Museums of Northern Ireland, I also declare that nobody held a gun to my head to write this.
The Yellow Door at the Museum is not without its flaws. It's a beautiful location for a restaurant, it is accessible in every possible way to museum visitors and non-visitors alike, but it can be a bit of a thoroughfare. There are two doors on the ground floor into the museum and one of them means visitors walk straight through the restaurant.
Having said that, the restaurant is big enough to find a cosy, isolated corner for yourself and your family far enough from the door to avoid the throughput altogether. In fact, there is no window view like this one over the mature lawns and trees of Botanic Gardens from the comfort of a table in Yellow Door at the Museum. It's all very classy and smart, and families will enjoy the space.
The food is nouvelle Ulster traditional (volumes and flavours with a bit of continental flourish). There is a sense of real pride and artistry and while it is clear to see that Yellow Door comes from a catering culture – things move quickly and efficiently rather than in a stately and elegant manner – it's the food that matters.
The summer menu is brief but everything you'd expect is there: potato and leek soup with the famous Yellow Door breads, Caesar salad, mussels, cod and leek cakes and some pasta dishes.
There are some classics which, particularly if you have friends and relatives to entertain while hosting a visit to Belfast, are a must. The Taste of Ulster board is a ploughman's lunch deluxe. The Belfast ham is out of this world, coming from Givans, and appears in a little mound of finely sliced layers of translucent pink. Another home player making an appearance is the oak-smoked Cheddar from Fivemiletown, which gets better and better every time I try it.
But the real excitement is in the paste-like liver pâté, the Moyallan plum and apple chutney and the super-tangy pickled onions and caulifower. The flavours here cover the whole range of sweet, sour, salty and savoury, and with two chunks of the multi-seed brown bread constitutes a full lunch. I had this as a starter shared with expert baker and culinary aristocrat David Semple.
The Dundrum Bay mussels were spot-on and the white wine sauce with garlic and cream was addictive. You can have this as a starter for £4.50 or a large bowl for £8.95. Go for the large bowl. Mussel for mussel you're getting more, so if you're aiming for a single-course lunch, this one's a good alternative to the board.
I tried everything else (there's a sound children's menu for £3.95 and even organic baby food for £2.95) and couldn't fault any of it. The enthusiasm and passion of Andrew Dougan is infectious and when you look at the list of suppliers (meat from Rory Best's farm as well as Dougan's own) and proper bread (not made from pre-prepared mixes) from his own ovens, you can be sure your guests are getting some excellent local produce.
Taste of Ulster board £7.95
Dundrum Mussels £7.95
Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, BT9 5AB
Tel: 028 9038 3000
* Last week we carried a review of Hawthorne Restaurant at Fultons. This restaurant has closed since the review was compiled